Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn are strangers who connect on the dance floor in <em>Lovers Rock. </em>
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Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn are strangers who connect on the dance floor in Lovers Rock.

Like many people, I've spent the lockdown months looking for distractions. But even as I enjoyed watching Inspector Morse solve murder after murder in Oxford, what I want to highlight about 2020 are some books, films and TV shows that didn't simply distract me but delved into enduring questions of freedom, dignity and survival.

Square Haunting, by Francesca Wade (Penguin Random House)

First up is Square Haunting, Francesca Wade's fascinating book about five groundbreaking women. Virginia Woolf, Imagist poet H.D., classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power and mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers all lived in London's bohemian Mecklenburgh Square between the two world wars. In telling their stories — which collide, overlap and echo one another — Wade follows the messy, inspiring destinies of women who fought to rise above social restrictions, oppressive notions of femininity and the condescension of men who were nearly always their inferiors.

The Complete Films of Agnès Varda (The Criterion Collection)

You find a similar trajectory with filmmaker Agnès Varda. She was long treated as something of a lesser outlier of the male French New Wave; yet by her death in 2019 at age 90, the world recognized that this natural-born feminist was actually a New Wave precursor and a major artist. Her career is captured in the year's best boxed set — Criterion's The Complete Films of Agnès Varda — topped by her Parisian masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7, about a chanteuse who learns to see the world instead of worrying about how the world sees her. What made Varda great wasn't simply her formal daring, but her boundless curiosity. She made movies about everything — artists and drifters, peasants and the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, her family and even her cat.

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, edited by Kevin Young (The Library of America)

I've already ordered gift copies of the year's most revelatory book, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. Superbly edited by Kevin Young, this astonishing collection runs from Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who wrote elegant verse, to such present day luminaries as Terrance Hayes and Claudia Rankine. The poems are steeped in the sorrow, pain and rage you'd expect from people treated so inhumanely. The writers featured in this volume — most of whom I didn't know — are poets who explore the whole range of human experience — love, death, jazz, food, menopause, fatherhood, gentrification, moon landings, even jive artists who wrap themselves in Black suffering just to get ahead. In different ways, they celebrate, in Lucille Clifton's words, "that every day/something has tried to kill me/and has failed."

The Good Lord Bird (Showtime and Hulu)

Slavery itself lies at the heart of Showtime's The Good Lord Bird, a sly African American riff on Huckleberry Finn. Based on James McBride's novel, this miniseries is narrated by Henry Shackleford, an orphaned Black tween taken under the wing of the grandiose abolitionist John Brown. Hopscotching between travesty and tragedy, The Good Lord Bird offers an irreverently multifaceted take on historical figures — including Frederick Douglass — usually portrayed with unalloyed seriousness. In Ethan Hawke's dazzling performance, Brown is by turns tender and violent, righteous and absurd. And though he makes a hash of the Harpers Ferry raid, Henry knows that Brown is right to insist that white men had the moral imperative to fight slavery.

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit Books)

Our moral challenge is climate change. It's the subject of a great new book, The Ministry of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, a crack political novelist dressed up in the space suit of a science fiction writer. His hero is Mary Murphy, the Irish head of the UN's Ministry of the Future, whose mission is to protect the planet for the generations to come. But how can she — or anyone else — possibly do that? The book's elaborate fictional answer involves everything from developing a new form of currency to eco-terrorists using drones to take down jets. Bursting with ideas on every page, this novel raises inconvenient questions about overcoming climate change: Can it be done without violence? Can the rich stay rich? And how will our daily lives need to change to create a sustainable carbon output? The happy news is that Robinson is utopian enough to think it's not too late to revolutionize our way of living.

David Byrne's American Utopia (HBO) and Lovers Rock (Amazon Prime Video)

And speaking of revolution, the great American radical Emma Goldman once said that she didn't want to be part of one if it wouldn't let her dance. In that spirit, I want to end this list on an upbeat note, by praising the year's two most ecstatic movies, which both use dancing to offer a glimpse of utopia. In HBO's film of David Byrne's American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee, an exuberant multicultural cast responds to our troubled times by dancing into the audience singing the great Talking Heads song "Road to Nowhere." And in Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock on Amazon Prime Video, young people of West Indian heritage escape the racism and violence of 1980s London at a house party where they dance and sing and fall in love. Both films remind us that, even in dark days, we can find transcendent joy in something as evanescent as a pop song.

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